Zadie Smith on The Social Network

From Zadie Smith’s excellent piece on The Social Network in the latest NYRB.

World makers, social network makers, ask one question first: How can I do it? Zuckerberg solved that one in about three weeks. The other question, the ethical question, he came to later: Why? Why Facebook? Why this format? Why do it like that? Why not do it another way? The striking thing about the real Zuckerberg, in video and in print, is the relative banality of his ideas concerning the “Why” of Facebook. He uses the word “connect” as believers use the word “Jesus,” as if it were sacred in and of itself: “So the idea is really that, um, the site helps everyone connect with people and share information with the people they want to stay connected with….” Connection is the goal. The quality of that connection, the quality of the information that passes through it, the quality of the relationship that connection permits—none of this is important. That a lot of social networking software explicitly encourages people to make weak, superficial connections with each other (as Malcolm Gladwell has recently argued1), and that this might not be an entirely positive thing, seem to never have occurred to him.

I couldn’t agree more with the following.

Shouldn’t we struggle against Facebook? Everything in it is reduced to the size of its founder. Blue, because it turns out Zuckerberg is red-green color-blind. “Blue is the richest color for me—I can see all of blue.” Poking, because that’s what shy boys do to girls they are scared to talk to. Preoccupied with personal trivia, because Mark Zuckerberg thinks the exchange of personal trivia is what “friendship” is. A Mark Zuckerberg Production indeed! We were going to live online. It was going to be extraordinary. Yet what kind of living is this? Step back from your Facebook Wall for a moment: Doesn’t it, suddenly, look a little ridiculous? Your life in this format?

Yes, we should struggle against it. Yes, our lives are ridiculous. Not what happens, not what we think and feel, but certainly how we try to present ourselves to others. I don’t think there’s anyone I’ve gotten to know any better by being their ‘friend’ on Facebook. I know more about them, that’s all. But knowing which bands or films (or more rarely, books) other people like doesn’t bring us any closer. It does not make for a ‘connection’. It is just a way for us to spy on each other without the risk, or trouble, of actual interaction.

But I will not be quitting Facebook anytime soon. I do things that I want to tell people about, and I use Facebook for that, and it seems only fair that my Facebook ‘friends’ should get to tell me what they’re doing in return. It’s an exchange, a social transaction. But really nothing more.

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